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Blogging with Brendan: “What is past is prologue”: Introducing Shakespeare to Kids

“No legacy is so rich as honesty.” An important lesson for a human being at any stage of development, and I can distinctly remember hearing some variation of this—honesty is the best policy—at an early age. As you can probably guess from the title of this blog post, that quote above is from Shakespeare’s play All’s Well That Ends Well. While some might (rightfully) argue that his language is too difficult for children to appreciate, the Bard’s stories and themes cut to the heart of the human experience and retain compelling, eminently relatable life lessons. But drop the name “Shakespeare” around a group of American high school students and you might get a shudder, a groan, perhaps a cry of pain. Maybe our old buddy Bill needs some help with his image.

Shakespeare is one of the greatest playwrights in history, and his iconic works have been widely performed across the globe for almost 400 years. There’s no denying how important Shakespeare’s work is to the Western canon—or how dang good this guy is at writing plays. But most students are dropped head-first into Romeo & Juliet or Hamlet in high school without much (if any) of a previous relationship with Shakespeare’s work. All they know is that it’s “supposed to be boring and difficult.” Well, Shakespeare said it best: “In time we hate that which we often fear.” Fie, I say!

At a high school level, studying Shakespeare can help students develop important language and literacy skills. Shakespeare’s plays are full of rich and complex language; careful study of the meaning, rhythm and sound of his language can reveal incredible nuance and power in how he uses words (or makes them up!). This, in turn, can lead to an appreciation for the versatility of the English language, of metaphor and of poetry. In addition to language, some of Shakespeare’s plots deal with complex themes and sociopolitical issues. Plays like Julius Caesar require readers to think deeply about character motivations, plot developments, and historical contexts. Shakespeare helps students learn to analyze and interpret texts in a thoughtful and well-researched way, which can serve them well in all areas of their lives (especially when it comes to academics).

Yes, studying Shakespeare is important. Life-changing, even. But if teens enter high school English with this preconception of Shakespeare as unapproachable, archaic and overly intellectual—these gifts are locked away. How can we, your friendly neighborhood community theatre, provide the key?

Well, for a start, we are producing two plays by Shakespeare that are designed for two distinct audiences. Lions in Illyria is a fun, engaging and thoroughly ridiculous play. It’s got love triangles, disguises, elaborate pranks and silly swordfights. It’s a Shakespeare play (with animals). Specifically, it’s an adaptation of Twelfth Night, one of his most popular comedies. We are taking our production of Lions in Illyria on the road to schools, community centers and libraries across the region, sharing this story with thousands of elementary school children. The show also comes with a post-show study guide to connect what the kids have seen to the original play—and to Shakespeare himself. The hope is that the young students who laugh, cheer and connect with the story of Lions understand that Shakespeare’s stories can be a joyful and relevant experience for them. Years later, as they are handed Romeo & Juliet, they recall the positive memories they have of Shakespeare and are more open to engaging with his work. They are not afraid of this 400-year-old English dude with the funny frilly ruff around his neck.

Where Lions provides the gateway for elementary students to appreciate Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream (our summer Lab show) is where our middle and high school students can engage more deeply with his work. Since many of us are introduced to Shakespeare in English class, it’s easy to forget that his work was written to be performed.

Shakespeare is theatre at its best, and theatre at its best can help us develop empathy and emotional intelligence. His stories can help us understand and relate to a wide range of experiences and perspectives. By studying Shakespeare, we can develop a greater sense of empathy and understanding for others (“Tis not enough to help the feeble up, but to support them after”), spark a lifelong love of literature and the arts, and inspire us to explore new ideas and perspectives throughout their lives.

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